Team USA’s youngest Olympian loves movies, but can’t drive himself to the theater

  • At 16, Kanak Jha is the youngest member of this year’s U.S. delegation and the youngest table tennis player in the event’s Olympic history. MUST CREDIT: USOC handout. USOC handout

  • Team USA’s Kanak Jha serves to Brazil’s Gustavo Tsuboi during the Pan Am Games in Markham, Ontario, last July. He’s the youngest American Olympian this year at age 16. AP file

Washington Post
Published: 8/5/2016 12:12:09 AM

RIO DE JANEIRO – Sweat beaded on Kanak Jha’s forehead Thursday afternoon as he hunched forward, his chestnut eyes absorbed by the white plastic ball, his right hand making delicate semi-circles with his table tennis paddle. He kept his left hand in the pocket of his black shorts so he could pull out another ball in the event of a mistake by him or his practice partner, so he would never have to stop.

Jha has spent most of his life utterly focused and in a hurry. He is an Olympian at 16, among the first United States representative born in the 2000s, the youngest member of this year’s U.S. delegation and the youngest table tennis player in the event’s Olympic history. He had a professional coach at age 6. He moved to Sweden last year to train and play professionally. He is the reigning U.S. champion.

Every competition-addled man and boy in America has descended into a basement or trudged out to a garage to a little play ping pong. It is a sport everyone plays, and the best player in the country is a 16-year-old kid who likes going to the movies but can’t drive himself there.

In a sport dominated by Asian nations, particularly China, Jha may be American’s best hope to win its first medal in the sport, if not this Olympics than in a future games. He still needs to add strength to compete with the world’s best players. Jha stands close to the table to mitigate his dearth of power, and he favors his wicked forehand smash to his backhand. But when he plays teenagers, those his age, from powerhouse countries, he often wins.

“He may change the sport,” said Timothy Wang, who’s making his second Olympic appearance. “Definitely, he has the potential to beat them as long as he can continue to work hard.”

Wang said he often forgets he is training or traveling with a 16-year-old. On the flight to Rio, Jha engaged in an online Monopoly game with Wang, USA Table Tennis CEO Gordon Kaye and a computer-based player. As the game progressed, Wang collected enough money and property that it became obvious he would win. Jha hatched a desperate, diabolical strategy – he traded all of his assets to the computer for nothing.

“I never lost to Tim, so I knew I couldn’t let Tim win,” Jha said. “I just gave everything I owned to the computer, so the computer would win. And Tim got pretty angry.”

The move, Wang said, reflects Jha’s playing style. Tenacity is not a quality often associated with table tennis, but it has come to define Jha in the eyes of his older teammates.

“He kind of bites on to your leg,” Wang said. “Even if he’s down, he’s never out. It doesn’t matter if he’s down, 10-0. He won’t just give up.”

Jha played his first game of table tennis at age 5, when he tagged along with his sister, Prachi, and parents to a recreation center in his hometown of San Jose. He kept playing and fell in love. He showed enough natural talent that he started entering tournaments at age 6. At one of those, he met Stefan Feth, a local coach who took him under his tutelage. The more Jha played table tennis, the more he loved it.

By 2012, at age 12, Jha made the national under-15 team. He made the national men’s semifinals – where he lost to Wang, who was then 21 – the next year, at age 13.

“I never really noticed him before,” Wang said. “In the quarterfinals, he beat another opponent. I was expecting to play the other guy. When he won, I had to totally change my game plan.”

Last year, Jha moved to Sweden to live with his sister, who was training in an attempt to make the Rio Games. (She ultimately fell short.) Every day, he trained for 2 or three hours in the morning, took a break, then drilled for another two or three hours in the evening.

“After a while, it gets sometimes a little mentally tiring, especially if you don’t have any tournaments coming up for like three, four weeks,” Jha said. “Sometimes, it just gets exhausting.”

The work paid off when Jha made the Olympic team. On his 16th birthday this past June, he threw out the first pitch at a New York Mets game. He walked off the plane to Rio with a smile plastered on his face. He spotted Michael Phelps walking off the same elevator he was getting on in the Olympic Village. He found himself one spot ahead of Rafael Nadal while ordering lunch another day.

After a press conference Thursday afternoon, Jha posed on the dais while a teammate snapped a cell phone picture. “Make sure you get the name tag,” he said. Every once in a while, Jha really does act his age.

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